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Tuesday, 10 June 2008

In defence of the Kachasu industry...

Now we venture into uncharted waters. I have been thinking about Kachasu related issues of late. Kachasu (or lituka) is a traditional Zambian brew that is drunk in many rural parts of Zambia and in poor urban townships. My reflections have been prompted by a combination of two recent wonderful articles in the Times of Zambia and a recent download of a classic Zambian song by the Five Revolutions called 'Kachasu', which brought floods of memories of my early childhood in Nchelenge and Mwansabombwe.

Kachasu's alcoholic content can vary significantly, depending on the strength of the brew. A research on the composition and safety of kachasu conducted in 2001 by by University of Zambia (UNZA) academics, found that Kachasu contained about 20 to 30% ethanol - pure alcohol. They discovered that the beer contains no major contaminants but added that basic hygiene was crucial. The researchers also noted that if flavoured with fruits, it could be made less potent. Other studies have found the strength can be as high as 70%. The limit to Kachasu's strength appears to depend on the strength of people who drink it.

In a recent piece Kachasu at the heart of George Township, Trevor Lubala explains the art of making Kachasu :


''Kachasu brewing is a tedious process. It starts with buying half germinated maize, which is later dried and then pounded before winnowing it using a winnowing basket to remove the wastes. The mixture of fine half-germinated maize and sugar are then immersed in cold water and left for some days for fermentation to take place. During the cold season, fermentation is longer than in dry season scientifically because the enzymes are more active in higher temperatures. After fermentation has taken place, water is drained from the mixture; that water is the most important liquor every kachasu brewer targets. Then a fire is prepared with firewood to heat up the ‘drained water’ in the drum. The moment the water reaches its boiling point, alcoholic vapour escapes from the drum and passes through a pipe attached to it. This pipe runs into a tin as the vapour changes its state back into water, which is then recollected and packed in small containers. The water being recollected is not mere liquid, but kachasu itself.''

Simply put, Kachasu is a low skill labour intensive product. In a country with massive unemployment and poor education standards, especially among women, it fits the bill of would be rural or urban township entrepreneurs. As Ms Mbewe explain to Trevor, 'I have nothing else to survive on, I look after my three children out of this business'. On the demand side, the low price for the product seems to generate ulimited demand, as typified by the response from Trevor's "easterner" : “My brother, let no man cheat you. This is a beer that once you discover, you can never wish to stop. It’s so nice, I have even stopped taking bottled beers because one, I don’t get drunk on them any more, and two I spend a lot of money on them. But not for this beer,” .

This is when it becomes a little complicated because selling Kachasu is of course illegal in many certain Zambian towns with Kachasu bye-laws in place. There is no national law preventing home based consumption, though government has previously campaigned hard for avoidance. Indeed the Five Revolutions' Kachasu song was largely driven by the government propaganda to sway people away from drinking it. During One Party state it was common for the government to get bands to do songs that accorded with the government position at the time. That said, the main point is that Kachasu remains legal to drink, what is forbidden is the commercialisation of Kachasu and that appears to depend on local enforcement of bye-laws.

What are we to make of all this? We can drink ourselves to death or financial ruin or marital breakdown as long as it is at home (parallels to the smoking ban clearly don't fit, since smoking remains a commercial activity, though its public consumption is somewhat restricted). After careful reflection on this issue, I have come to the conclusion that the bye laws sole focus on preventing commercialisation of Kachasu is misguided for a number of reasons.

The first reason is that the social negatives (or 'market failures') have not been proven. On 'efficiency grounds' alone, government intervention is only warranted if drinking Kachasus is someway imposes a wider cost on society that is not borne by the drinker (an 'external' cost). What could these costs be? Two come immediately to mind:


  • Kachasu may cause health related issues, with wider repercussions for society. For example, it might lead to lost output through causing death or illness, which might even put more pressure on public services (on the flip side, death might reduce long term dependency on the state). As i have noted above, the UNZA research found that there was no significant contaminants in Kachasu, and crucially no adult has yet died from taking Kachasu directly. Any health issues appear linked to hygiene and those probably go beyond the Kachasu industry. This is crucial because in the past, there has been some unfounded allegations that some kachasu brewers add battery acid or fertiliser to give the drink its bite. We find these allegations not just with Kachasu but with other local brews like Chibuku. But even if such problems existed, that does not necessarily mean that government must ban Kachasu. We first need to understand the scale of the problem, assuming such problems exist, specifically what the social cost on society is that is not borne by the drinker (this would require measuring the cost quantitatively, with some precision). Then we need to provide a positive rationale for tackling the problem. The government really has many other 'market failures' besides Kachasu which they could equally address, but for lack of time or effort or lobbying they don't. We need a positive reason why the Kachasu issue is more important than others (beyond being politically more feasible), since we can't tackle everything (a positive argument could be based on the need to expanding freedoms - more on this later, if time and space allows). Finally, we need a policy instrument that fully addresses the scale of the problem and fulfills the positive rationale without difficulties. For example, we might reasonably argue that even if Kachasu is a problem, a ban may be inappropriate because if health related issues are the failure, we simply need to make sure the Kachasu drinkers pay for the cost in some way. But even before that we face question on why other drinks like Scottish gin or Chibuku aren't treated as failures of the market - an answer might be that they are taxed! If so, why not then simply formalise Kachasu and tax it? Without going into too much deeper discussion, it becomes immediatelty clear that its a complicated issue.
  • Kachasu may cause civil disobedience, crime and family breakdown. On the surface this seems the more straightforward to accept. My old neighbour in Nchelenge was a serious Kachasu drinker. Nearly always you would hear him from afar late in the night making noise. But for every noise Kachasu drinker theres a quiet one! I do not think that Kachasu drinkers are any noisier or lead to more family break down than other types of alcoholics! Just ask European football fans who after drinking tonnes of bottled beers suddenly turn into serious football hooligans. In any case even if Kachasu has a deeper psychological and physiological effect that generate propensity towards civil disobedience and family breakdown, one is still left with the inevitable question of whether other interventions would be better rather than hurting the private and social benefits it might bring. The key point here of course is that as well as trying to resolve the "market failures" of civil disobedience and so forth, we also need to recognise that sometimes the other danger is "government failure". Many are the troubles that well intentioned policies bring.
A point worth noting immediately is that on economic "efficiency grounds", whether Kachasu causes urban or rural poverty, is beside the point. As long as the wider social costs on society that we have discussed are properly costed for and reflected through a Kachasu specific tax or some other instrument, there's nothing to worry about. I emphasise this point because many commentators have argued that Kachasu is not just as a product of rampant poverty but its actually the 'cause' for higher poverty levels in rural areas and many urban townships. A recent fascinating article by Gethsemane Mwizabi Kantolomba - Forgotten Ndola Township singles out Kachasu as a powerful negative force in the fight against HIV and social breakdown :

'Kantolomba has the highest number of TB, STDs, and HIV cases in Ndola district. This is due to the fact that the township acts as a manufacturer of Kachasu, the illicit beer. A lot of men and women, including youth idle around taverns and sink their lips into cups of chibuku too''.

This view was also recently articulated by the nation's grandmother Mama Betty Kaunda, going as far as to call for a full national ban on Kachasu because it was supposedly destroying people’s lives:

When people drink Kachasu, especially in rural areas, they become completely unproductive. Government should do something about this situation so that discipline can be restored in our country" .

The truth of course is that there's no evidence that Kachasu causes poverty. All we know is that the poor and the most traditional of Zambians like Kachasu or go together (correlate). Proving that something causes another thing is actually quite difficult. But even if it were the cause of poverty, as I have explained above, it would not matter as long those negative costs are known and are fully reflected in the prices people pay for Kachasu.

The watch phrase of course is "economic efficiency grounds". There might of course be other reasons on "equity or fairness grounds", why it would matter that Kachasu causes poverty (assuming it does indeed cause poverty). If say Kachasu resulted in some form of spatial inequality i.e. it lead to poor areas getting pooerer due to Kachasu drinking and richer areas getting richer due to Kachasu avoidance. In so far as society may prefer a more equitable society, and inequality may lead to other "unpriced" negative effects in the long term (i.e. beyond the direct ones we have discussed), the government might want to intervene to reverse these inequalities.

The key here of course is for government to demonstrate that Kachasu leads to poverty and then to wider gaps between urban areas ('urban inequality) amd between regions (regional inequality). As I have said, this is of course a tall order. For one thing, establishing causality is an extremely daunting task. The closest we come to doing that is through random controlled trials (RCT), but even those rely on plenty of assumptions (e.g. excludes general equilibrium effects). In a Kachasu RCT, we would randomly assign people to two different groups and treat one group with a lot of Kachasu and see whether the treated group is any poorer overtime, all things being equal. All of this is tricky of course and in any case no one has ever done the Kachasu RCT. My guess is that the individual drive for Kachasu is driven by their taste buds, availability of alternatives beers and of course their level of income. I suspect Kachasu is actually a good one demands less of as they have more income. So you could even argue that if we really want people to avoid Kachasu just put more money in their pockets! But I have no empirical basis for this, and some articles have shown that people of all walks of life like Kachasu. (see Potifer Tembo's
Illicit Kachasu beer, has it got a positive side?).

The other problem I have with the current bye-laws is that they appear to limit the eonomic freedoms of the poor, possibly in favour of greater freedoms for the rich. As we've established, the labour intensive nature of the brew lends itself well to the low skills of the poor. By preventing the poor from engaging in full commercialisation, it alters the incentives in favour of bottled beer drunk mostly by the rich. If economic freedom for the poor, is a measure of their development (in Sen sort of way), then any thing that restricts their choice clearly impacts negatively on them (whether this is bad from society's perspective depends on whether this is a zero sum game i.e. a win for the rich sees equal losses for the poor - that may not always be true in practice). At the end of the day the poor will always spend money on alcohol, the question is which type of alcohol and in what proportion. Unless there's a clear and compelling reason for a full ban, a partial anti-commercial ban must be viewed as discriminatory against the Kachasu industry in favour of the bottled industry, and against the poor in favour of the rich (who also have an array of drinking choices).

But its not just the issue of dicrimination, there's also the wider point that the opportunity cost of the current Kachasu bye-laws for Zambia appears to be significant. Kachasu brewing can be turned into a viable industry that is properly regulated and generates tax for government (money that could be used to handle any side effects, if any). That this industry has been prevented from emerging is there unfortunate. If we accept the analysis presented above, it is quite clear that government through the bye-laws has blacklisted of a good beer product which has the potential to be exported, earning the country much needed foreign exchange. Many have noted that it is actually sad that the government has allowed a Malawi- made spirit called "Number One" that is just as strong as kachasu being imported into Zambia. The 'Number One' spirit is brewed by local people in Malawi just like Zambian villagers who are being funded by their government in co-operatives, this beer is then brought to Zambia. See Potifer Tembo's piece reference above for on thse missed opportunities.

A final point is that common sense suggests that society, and crucially politicians, do not believe Kachasu is harmful. This local brew is drunk at many traditional ceremonies from the Mutomboko to the Kuomboka to the Ila festivals. Nearly all of these festivals are attended by politicians including the President. But its actually much worse than that. A recent Post Editorial noted that Zambian politicians often use beer (including Kachasu) to woo voters. While that particular Editorial rightly raises concerns of the negative effects of alcohol, the general call is for a principled approach to the problem and need for better regulation, rather than the current approach for politicians of applying double standards.

Of course formalising the Kachasu industry may carry some costs. Those costs should not be ignored and as we have argued the correct response is to reflect as much as we can in Kachasu prices. But whether you support formalisation or not the challenge for government is to carefully weigh these trades-offs and put a case to the people on why the Kachasu industry should remain informal or indeed why the ban should be extended to prevent consumption at home. Crucially government needs to also evaluate the opportunity cost of the current bye-laws. My current inclination is that the pros of lifting bye-laws and formalising the industry outweigh the costs. I would be interested to hear from others on this issues, especially on my intepretation of the current legal framework.

20 comments:

  1. Kachasu's alcoholic content can vary significantly, depending on the strength of the brew. A research on the composition and safety of kachasu conducted in 2001 by by University of Zambia (UNZA) academics, found that Kachasu contained about 20 to 30% ethanol - pure alcohol. They discovered that the beer contains no major contaminants but added that basic hygiene was crucial. The researchers also noted that if flavoured with fruits, it could be made less potent. Other studies have found the strength can be as high as 70%. The limit to Kachasu's strength appears to depend on the strength of people who drink it.

    I don't think that qualifies as beer anymore. :)

    The moment the water reaches its boiling point, alcoholic vapour escapes from the drum and passes through a pipe attached to it.

    I think that's called distilling. That's not beer, those are spirits.

    Unless there's a clear and compelling reason for a full ban, a partial anti-commercial ban must be viewed as discriminatory against the Kachasu industry in favour of the bottled industry, and against the poor in favour of the rich (who also have an array of drinking choices).

    About the same reason why a ban on weed is so popular among official brewers.

    Many have noted that it is actually sad that the government has allowed a Malawi- made spirit called "Number One" that is just as strong as kachasu being imported into Zambia. The 'Number One' spirit is brewed by local people in Malawi just like Zambian villagers who are being funded by their government in co-operatives, this beer is then brought to Zambia. See Potifer Tembo's piece reference above for on thse missed opportunities.

    Why is it that the government does not see it as falsifying competition, to benefit foreign producers over Zambian producers? This is not the only issue, but also the so-called economic zones, the benefits given to foreign businesses over Zambian businesses, etc.

    If they really believe in free competition, let's let all of Zambian owned and operated businesses go untaxed or be minimally taxed.

    Maybe there should be bottled Kachasu, with people making money from copyrights and people able to choose between official brands.

    One thing that is irritating, is that politicians seem to only want change that personally benefits themselves. You can already see them lining up to operate national beer companies themselves, instead of leaving it up to the markets, the way they lined up to become farmers. :)

    Interesting article by Jared Diamond on the German beer industry.

    The German beer industry suffers from small-scale production. There are a thousand little beer companies in Germany, shielded from competition with each other because each German brewery virtually has a local monopoly, and shielded from competition with imports. The United States has 67 major beer breweries, producing 23 billion liters of beer per year. All of Germany's breweries produce only half as much. Thus, the average US brewery produces 31 times more beer than the average German brewery.

    Maybe Zambian producers should be helped to create local monopolies for their product.

    It might even save a little on foreign currency, because of the lack of importation of other spirits/beers.

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  2. Ah.. When I was 10 or so years old I watched a documentary on Kachasu. I couldn't remember where in Southern Africa it was from but now I know. And the documentary was scary.

    For example, it might lead to lost output through causing death or illness, which might even put more pressure on public services (on the flip side, death might reduce long term dependency on the state).

    Actually death reduces long term dependency for the consumer. But what about the people who depend on that consumer ? Widows, orphans become dependent of the state or the society in general (to an extend).


    As i have noted above, the UNZA research found that there was no significant contaminants in Kachasu, and crucially no adult has yet died from taking Kachasu directly. Any health issues appear linked to hygiene and those probably go beyond the Kachasu industry.

    With alcohol content going up to 70%, I can guarantee you that there are health issues not related to hygene. Things strictly caused by the alcohol itself.
    So you cannot rest your whole argument on contaminants themselves.


    The truth of course is that there's no evidence that Kachasu causes poverty.

    Well, alcoholism (and drug use) and poverty are a vicious circle.
    Alcoholism can cause job loss, family breakdown, domestic violence which contribute to poverty but on the other hand poverty itself contribute to these things and alcoholism.`


    But here's my larger point: in the documentary I've seen, which could have been greatly exagerated (you tell me), the Kacahsu drinkers didn't look like beer or wine or palm wine drinkers. The whole thing looked like pictures of Opium consumption in China in the beginning of the 20th century: dozen of men laying on benches knocked out.
    I mention that because, from that picture, my impression was that comparing it to other spirit, let alone beer (Mr K is totally right) is not accurate. And the social ills may be comparable to Opium or other harder drugs.

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  3. actually, the informalisation itself is an issue.

    Standardizing the alcohol content would help consumers to evaluate their consumption. (simply tasting it is unreliable).

    And excessive alcohol content (beyond 40% or so) and could be banned and the health/social risks limited.

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  4. Maybe Zambian producers should be helped to create local monopolies for their product.

    Destoy the roads, get rid of the automobiles, get rid of the nation-state, make chieftancies ban "imports" from other chieftancies, keep it going for three or four centuries and you'll have the same virtual local monopolies.

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  5. ”I don't think that qualifies as beer anymore.” - Mrk

    As I said the strength depends on the drinker :) If you had fruits it becomes a beer! lol!


    ”With alcohol content going up to 70%, I can guarantee you that there are health issues not related to hygiene. Things strictly caused by the alcohol itself. So you cannot rest your whole argument on contaminants themselves.” - Random

    D-Squared says the same thing. I think the point I was trying to make is that it need not be 70%.

    "actually, the informalisation itself is an issue. Standardizing the alcohol content would help consumers to evaluate their consumption. (simply tasting it is unreliable). And excessive alcohol content (beyond 40% or so) and could be banned and the health/social risks limited."
    - Random

    Thats the key. I am not proposing that the poor be allowed to drink in the current form..just that we recognise that an economic activity exists here that if we properly regulated it and taxed we could avoid other problems.

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  6. ....by the way, my wife was worried when I started reading around the issue of Kachasu...!...when I said..I was going to have the little article published in one of the dailies.. i got a very definite NO....

    so for now..the Kachasu movement remains on the blog!

    lol!

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  7. ....by the way, my wife was worried when I started reading around the issue of Kachasu...!...when I said..I was going to have the little article published in one of the dailies.. i got a very definite NO....

    LOL !

    D-Squared says the same thing. I think the point I was trying to make is that it need not be 70%.

    yeah I read that (he's been on my blogroll for a year).

    I am not proposing that the poor be allowed to drink in the current form..just that we recognise that an economic activity exists here that if we properly regulated it and taxed we could avoid other problems.

    Well, yeah. Just be careful to not push the "tradition" and "local entreprise" sides of the argument too far because those can be used to argue against proper regulation and taxation.

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  8. No "tradition"....I am still working on that traditional article..will blog it soon..

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  9. Just to come back to the issue, but 70% is in the Absinth range - check out the Nine Inch Nails video "The Perfect Drug" to get an impression. Absinth is often poured over a sugarcube, to mitigate the bitter taste. It is 70% wood alcohol.

    Have a pint of that. :)

    Anyway, Zambia and Africa have their own strains of weed (see Zambian Copper), which are worldfamous (especially Malawi Gold and Durban Poison). Weed of course has no calories and you have very little or no hangover.

    And weed when grown as a fiber crop can be made into literally thousands of products and has many uses, including rehabilitation of eroded soils and farmland.

    Southern Province could have huge areas of weed, which would give rise to paper, cardboard and textile industries. It could produce biodegradable packaging for the world. Does everyone know that there is a huge area in the Pacific Ocean, that is practically a raft of floating plastic bags, cups, etc?

    Plastic ocean: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

    The area is described as 'twice the size of Texas', which would be slightly over 530,000 square miles.

    There must be funds available as we speak to deliver green alternatives to plastic - the most obvious being hemp. Legalize it, and create jobs.

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  10. Great article! I'm surprised you didn't mention prohibition in America. Illegalising alcohol creates an underground market for it controlled by gangsters and mobs, where the liquor is brewed cheaply and irresponsibly by gangsters wishing to make a quick buck. By legalising it you create anther government source of revenue (good on the Malawi government). Under prohibition people still drunk alcohol only in dark bars and seedy settings controlled by mobs, you legalise it and it’s drunk in an open settings where drinkers are more responsible and controlled in there drink habits.

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  11. Anonymous,

    Thank you!
    I had not looked into American experiences!

    Indeed, the benefits of formalisation actually go beyond the development of the sector. There are other benefits, such as reducing on the costs of policing an unnecessary underground sector, etc.

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  12. The American prohibition was a ban on ALL ALCOHOL consumption.

    To an extend, when one bans one type of alcohol, consumers can reallocate their consumption elsewhere.

    And also, Zambia already has some of the effects. Cheap brewing and maximalization of alcohol content.

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  13. I suspect with 100% prohibition the impacts are more severe...not to mention policing costs..

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  14. Alcohol prohibition created the mafia, while prohibition of marijuana and especially cocaine created the kartels.

    Columbia has been practically taken over by individuals who are waging a permanent war from profits from the cocaine trade. Either the various kartels, or the leftwing FARC guerillas. Even the CIA got in on the action, as witnessed by the Iran-Contra affair.

    That too is the consequence of prohibition. Government prohibition created a whole illegal market.

    Random,

    The American prohibition was a ban on ALL ALCOHOL consumption.

    To an extend, when one bans one type of alcohol, consumers can reallocate their consumption elsewhere.


    Isn't your proposal of banning only one type of alcohol going to drive people toward drinking official, imported spirits instead?

    Why not have a legal, Zambian kachasu industry instead?

    And why have prohibition, instead of legalisation?

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  15. Why not have a legal, Zambian kachasu industry instead?

    Well, if the kachasu industry manages to standardize and to get more expensive (that's an important point, people's budget are limited and the cheapest a product is, the more they'll consume and high consumption has health effetcs), I don't see why a prohibition would be necessary.

    And if it is, I'm not sure it had to go to imported spirits. First of all, people don't necessarily reallocate spirit for spirit and second, I don't see what stop Zambians from producing less dangerous spirits.

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  16. Standardization is the key.

    I am surprised though that the status quo has remained.

    I have received various emails on this and everyone agrees that a regulated Kachasu industry is the way forward.

    very strange....

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  17. Cho,
    Interesting article.
    Kachasu is very popular in NW province where it is called Lituku or Chavuma water and is drunk responsibly.
    The formula used in the urban areas has been modified to make it more potent. Things like yeast are added during the fermentation process which results in more alcohol per volume. I witnessed a simple test where a piece of beef liver sizzled when immersed in Kachasu.

    In my opinion the danger of Kachasu emanates from the fact that it is cheap, very potent and if taken in large quantities or over a long period of time it lead to Cirrhosis of the Liver and other complications. Furthermore, people tend to consume the drink on ‘empty stomachs’ which does not help matters.

    Anyone who has witnessed Kachusu being brewed (as I have done) would know that the hygiene issue is just a smokescreen. The stuff is produced by distillation which is inherently a clean process. In my opinion the process is more hygienic than making munkoyo, 7 days (Gakanta - Tonga brew) or Katubi.

    The Panel.

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  18. The Panel,

    Thanks!

    I think the Kachasu issue has become ignored simply due to poor understanding of issues by our policy makers. Articles in the media don't help either!

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  19. Brewing article:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10263418

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. WHY DO YOU WANT TO BAN OUR BEER,US POOR PEOPLE WHO CAN,T AFFORD ENGLISH KACHASU.LEAVE IT AND US ALONE.IT,S THE ONLY CONDUIT FOR US TO EXPRESS OUR HAPPINESS.DON'T ROB US OF OUR BEER YOU HAVE YOURS IN INTERCONTINENTALS,PAMODZIS AND WE DON'T BOTHER YOU

      Delete

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